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Travel in the Time of COVID-19

23 Oct

23 October 2021.

So, my friends, it has been a bit since last I blogged. After Ortisei we headed to the Alpe di Siusi for two nights and then passed three nights in Merano, a new-to-us town in Italy’s Trentino Alto-Adige. Lovely place with nice walking and an exceptional garden at Trauttmansdorff Castle. Photos below. 

Then we turned east instead of proceeding west as planned — a left instead of a right if you will — practicing the flexibility we expected might be needed during travel in the time of COVID-19. Venice called and the call was rewarded with mostly light crowds and fine weather. Without cruise ships there were no throngs of lost day trippers gaping at the scene and clogging the bridges. 

From Venice, three nights in Paris, always a fine stop before taking the EuroStar to the UK. 

Enough about locations and travel direction. This post is about conundrums: the observations we have after almost two months visiting five countries and the idiosyncrasies of pandemic response.

  • We could fly into Germany with proof-of-vaccination…but Italy would have forced us to quarantine for 5 days. Switzerland allowed us in as vaccinated persons so we went there first and stayed for almost 5 weeks.
  • After 14 days in another bloc country, Italy would allow us to visit without quarantine…but no one ever checked to see that we had actually spent the required time before entering.
  • Switzerland demanded we complete a pre-arrival questionnaire online that dispensed an approval code…but no one asked to see it. Ever. Ditto Italy. 
  • The canton of Valais in Switzerland provided us with a QR code proving we were fully vaccinated, the so-called “Green Pass” for the EU…but the actual scanning of the pass was erratic in Switzerland though mostly compliant in Italy and France.
  • Swiss trains do not require the Green Pass…but taking a EuroCity train from Switzerland to Italy did require it. An official came through the train before the border to check that we had the credentials.  
  • High-speed Swiss, German, and French trains sell food and drinks on board…but the Italian fast trains do not for COVID safety reasons*. This was startlingly inconvenient on our 8:18 AM three-and-a-half-hour trip from Venice to Torino. 
  • Parisians are very mask compliant on public transportation (and I love that they do not talk on trains or the Metro)…but in Italy and Switzerland there are a lot of exposed noses.
  • In Italy and France, one does not need proof of vaccination to check into a hotel, nor to eat breakfast in a common area…but one has to show a Green Pass to even have a coffee inside a café. Restaurants checked proof-of-vaccination assiduously. I was a wee bit worried about the breakfast room situation. By contrast, in Switzerland a Green Pass was required check-in to a hotel because of the dining/breakfast room situation.
  • The EuroStar requires vaccination or a negative test result to go from Paris to London…but in England they do not require proof nor even masks on the Tube, trains, buses, nor in museums and restaurants. 

*When I wanted coffee on the TGV from Torino to Paris, the bistro was not open even at 11:00 AM. However I had seen someone carrying coffee cups. I stuck my head in the door where a woman was preparing the service area and asked, politely, in Italian if it was possible to get coffee. “Certamente, Signora!” I think I bought under-the-counter coffee as the services were not opened until we crossed the French border. 

Other observations

Hotels in Switzerland, Italy, France, and Germany are still serving breakfast, on a buffet, requiring a mask to approach the food. They are also servicing rooms daily, unlike in the US where COVID-19 has become an excuse to cut services. It was wonderful to have our bed made on the rare occasions we stayed in hotels, and to have someone tidy up, not to mention laying out breakfast. (We have only stayed in hotels 12 nights in 9+ weeks.)

Why-oh-why can’t people talk on a phone without pulling down their mask? And what is the need for a lengthy conversation on a crowded cable car going up a mountain? That would annoy me even if there wasn’t a nasty disease circulating. 

No one in any country is able to measure one meter (generally advised distancing in Europe) or six feet. I find it really unnerving in England where people tend to queue up just as pre-pandemic. Shudder. We are wearing masks. Everywhere. 

England requires even vaccinated visitors to get a COVID test on-or-before Day 2. We tested negative so I guess our strategy of distancing, masking, and generally anti-social behavior worked. 

We are currently in Salisbury, England, a place we visited in spring of 2019 and were quite taken with. The apartment we found is cute and comfy (at least there is heating on demand unlike Venice in mid-October). Monday we go to London and we’ll be home in Oregon on the 30th. Not sure I will be able to stay awake for Trick-or-Treating on Halloween, though. 

No especially relevant pictures for this blog, but here are a few snaps from our activities since we left the Val Gardena. Click on any picture for a slide show.

A Path to Lunch

3 Oct

03 October 2021.

Sunday lunch in Europe is a special thing. So many multi-generational groups gather in restaurants and, I suppose, at homes. Maybe Nonna still cooks for the family on Sundays. I like to think so.

We take great pleasure in carving out a more special meal for lunch on Sunday when we are traveling. It’s even a better experience if we can have a good walk before and after. 

The weather today is borderline bleak and truly bleak weather is in the forecast, but Sunday we avoided rain and enjoyed a six-mile walk, truly a path to — and from — lunch.

For the 9 years we have been visiting Ortisei we have managed to miss an incredibly easy but satisfying walk from Selva di Val Gardena to Santa Cristina Valgardena. This is half of the path known locally as the Il Sentiero del Trenino della Val Gardena or The Trail of the Little Train in the Val Gardena. It is also called La  Ferata de Gherdëina using the Ladin language term for train. We can simply call it the Railway Path or “Trail of the Seven Playgounds.” If you take this route with children, you may never complete it because there are so many — yes, seven — playgrounds to enjoy along the way.

One of the seven playgrounds along the route. A little different than the playgrounds in Forest Grove.

For the record, we’ve walked the Ortisei to S. Cristina section both directions several times. We just never managed to do the Selva section and it might just be the best part.

Castle viewed from the trail. Private residence, dating to 1640 or so.

Why railway? There’s no train here now, but in WWI, Russian POWs were conscripted to build a narrow gauge railway between Chiusa and Selva di Val Gardena. After the war, it became a tourist train (history here until it was discontinued in 1960. Eventually, this path was created and serves as a lovely promenade through the Val Gardena for walkers and cyclists alike. 

Along the path one encounters historical pictures and descriptions of the creation of the WWI-era railway, public art, gardens, architecture, and valley and mountain views. The path is thoughtfully bifurcated in places to keep pedestrians and cyclists in separate lanes. There are ample places to stop and eat but we suggest timing this outing for lunch in S. Cristina at La Tambra, a restaurant/pizzeria/steakhouse.

Nothing says Sunday lunch like pork roast, this served with mushroom gravy and potato cakes that are rather like latkes. Of course we drank LaGrein, the local red.

Whether it is Sunday or not, this is a great stop. They have the best pizza in the Val Gardena and an excellent selection of soups, salads, pastas, steaks, and more. The dessert card is hard to resist. 

Warm raspberry sauce with vanilla gelato.

This isn’t a challenging hike. Almost anyone can do it. Most of the route is gently downhill, yet it is 6 miles worth of calorie burning activity with delightful views. What’s not to like?

Logistical details: Buses 350 and 352 from any of the villages take you to Selva Plan. The path starts just a tiny bit uphill from the stop and is quite evident. At S. Cristina, one can continue above the village without stopping in the center, or descend at Dosses to enter the pedestrian zone and find the restaurant. After dining, continue downhill and at the intersection with this sign.

Turn right to enter the interesting  display about the old train. Leaving the tunnel, again follow the obvious path, now steeply down a hill but eventually level again all the way to the church in Ortisei. Total a bit over 6 miles and 2.5 hours. 

Swiss Wrap-up

28 Sep

28 September 2021.

Five weeks ago we flew out of Portland. Condor Airlines whisked us from Seattle to Frankfurt and I have to say we quite enjoyed the flight. It wasn’t a full plane and we were propelled by the excitement of going abroad after two years. We were able to fly in Business Class thanks to Alaska Airlines’ extraordinary Mileage Plus Program and the miles we hoarded. Condor has some of the best in-flight food we’ve had plus we got some sleep. After a night in Frankfurt, we spent most of a day getting to Saas-Grund and finally, on the fourth day of our travels, our trip began with the infamous hike at Spielboden (See Glaciers and Butterflies).

We had a good time exploring the Saas Valley but the best was yet to come as we headed off for four weeks in the stunning Berner Oberland, establishing Base Camp Barton in James’ and Michelle’s cozy Lauterbrunnen Apartment. With a waterfall view and less than a kilometer from the train station, it is perfectly situated and very comfortable.

We’ve been here many times over the past eight years but never for such a prolonged period. The length of stay was a tactical decision made when Italy was requiring 10 days of quarantine for anyone who passed through the UK, which had been our original plan. If we spent at least 14 days in Switzerland, Italy would let us in without quarantine. The Swiss were happy to have us arrive vaccinated with no further restrictions. Of course the rules vis a vis stopping in the UK and transiting to Italy changed before we flew, but we had a course set and had managed to avoid LHR anyway by taking Condor instead of British Air. All ist gut. (See “Hey Europe! We’re Back!)

We’ve hiked over 80 miles. Astoundingly, my Fitbit tells me we’ve walked another 166 miles above-and-beyond the hikes! That’s just to-and-from transportation, doing daily grocery shopping, walking to meals, taking an evening passeggiata to stretch the legs. I hope my theory that exceeding 16,000 steps per day will counter the amount of cheese, bread, butter, potatoes, chocolate, wine, and Scotch consumed, the first five items being prominent in the Swiss diet. I can still zip my jeans.

During our stay, Switzerland enacted a requirement that to dine inside a restaurant one had to have a COVID Certificate which is only given to those who are fully vaccinated or who have tested negative in the prior 72 hours. We had our COVID Certificates issued by the Canton of Valais in August as I had discovered we could do so online in advance of travel. (Based on reports from others, I managed to do this before a logjam of requests slowed the system for travelers.) It turned out to be a great convenience when restaurants started to scan the QR codes on our phones. These coded certificates are viable throughout the EU so we don’t need new ones in Italy or France. It is a relief to know that inside restaurants we are relatively safe since this was enacted. Earlier, with good weather, we took great pains to eat outdoors. Now only the unvaccinated (or those willing to eat in cold temperatures or rain) eat al fresco here.  

Base Camp Barton allowed us to take two side trips, one to Kandersteg (See Another Valley to Discover in the Berner Oberland) and the other to Bettmeralp. I didn’t manage to blog about Bettmeralp this visit (See Finding Peace and Quiet from 2019), but we are quite taken with the area after two short visits and will likely stay a week next year. It is one of the quietest places I have been outside of Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area. I will leave you with a few tantalizing pictures of our time there. The hikes won’t be in the book because Bettmeralp is in Valais, not the Berner Oberland.

There will be several new hikes in the second edition of “Walking in Switzerland’s Berner Oberland,” so if you are planning a trip next year, wait until February to get the new book on Amazon. Three are in Kandersteg where there is potential for many more days of activity, one is in Gimmelwald, one near Stechelberg, two start from Zweilutschinen, and one is above Grindelwald. That will make 21 walks in the second edition. 

The cows, sheep, and goats are largely down from the higher elevations and the hiking season is coming to a close in the Lauterbrunnen Valley. Hoteliers and restauranteurs will take a break, lifts will have their annual servicing before ski season, snow plows will be readied to clear train tracks, roads, and the paths for winter wandern. All must be ready when the snow flies. And so we take our leave, looking forward to a return in 2022.

Late morning coffee in Mürren. We hiked 90 minutes for this!
Sheep being herded from mountain pasture to valley. I would hardly call it a ”parade.”
We never used to see these signs here but in the past we did see tourists with unnecessary cars venturing where they were not wanted. Not sure the signs are helping.

Yesterday we arrived in the Val Gardena of Italy, after one bus, five trains, and a taxi. It was simpler than it sounds thanks to Swiss efficiency. This is the only other location we’ve ever passed an entire month on holiday (See Training Cats and other blog entries from 2016). It’s time to speak Italian — after two years of no practice — and it is a relief to understand most of what we read. My German is poor at best.

Leaving heavy Swiss schnitzels and sausages and rösti behind, I know there will still be great chocolate and cheese here, plus grappa and great Italian food. After the eye-watering prices in Switzerland, costs in Italy seem quite sane although the price of an espresso in the mountains would make a Roman cry. We’ve already had superb pasta twice and taken a two-hour hike at about 7400 feet of elevation. Off to a good start!

A presto!

Sunrise on the Sassolungo as viewed from our apartment in Ortisei.

Swiss Whimsy

24 Sep

24 September 2021.

Every Swiss village and town is abundantly bedecked with seasonal flowers. Late summer canna lilies, daisies, sunflowers and geraniums are giving way to mums and decorative kale as our month in Lauterbrunnen comes to an end. Fall crocuses in the pastures are hanging on but the last of the high elevation campanula and other wildflowers were done in by the snow last weekend.

Still summery display in mid-September.

Embracing the flower culture is not surprising in this lush land. What is surprising is the garden whimsy, which at home in America usually comes off as silly, goofy, or downright stupid, is somehow quite charming in situ here. Perhaps it is because each garden is obsessively tended, each path swept clean, no junky cars or trash cans are in sight although chickens and rabbits in tidy pens are common.

Enjoy these snaps. Perhaps some well-kept whimsy should be in every yard. I might have to collect gargoyles again since Ric won’t let me have chickens or bunnies.

Neighboring bunnies by our apartment in Lauterbrunnen.They came hopping when we visited.
Chickens in the snow, Bettmeralp.

The best bus ride ever and road-blocking cows

18 Sep

18 September 2021.

Just another day in Switzerland.

After a thrilling bus ride (yes, a thrilling BUS ride!) we arrived at 5905 feet above sea level only to be held hostage for 5 minutes by a herd of very large Swiss cows who decided the big yellow bus did not need to keep to schedule. 

Thus began our day of discovery, hiking above Grindelwald in the Berner Oberland. 

If the Swiss don’t build a gondola to it, they will build a road as seemingly no place is inaccessible in this amazing country. We boarded a Grindelwald bus in the eponymous village and in minutes we were careening along a single lane mountain road, always up, past cows and waterfalls and Swiss farm buildings, our capable driver Francesca blasting the very loud four-note horn at curves to warn oncoming cars of our approach. Those with acrophobia need not apply. This was a ride that demanded the riders’ attention. There were no noses in screens for the riveting 30-minute ascent.

Then came the cows. BIG cows. Blocking the narrow road near the top. One nudged up against the bus and peered in the window, seemingly unable to squeeze past between bus and embankment. Francesca opened the doors. An attempt to scare them or to welcome them on board? Finally a farmer came along and encouraged them to mosey along. I wonder how often they play this game. If you suffer from Bovinophobia this is not the place for you.

At last at the top, the bus disgorged us. The four other passengers headed up the mountain to a restaurant at 8100 feet, a three-hour climb we were told. Ugh. Not easy-hiker stuff. We cast about looking for our hike, the path to Bort, where we would take a gondola back to the valley. One tiny sign pointed over an electric fence down a steep hill with no visible path. Not a great start. 

The big yellow Grindelwald Bus serves mountain residents and hikers.

Undaunted, we instead followed the road the bus had used — thankfully the cows had dispersed — and found a faint trail through a meadow that ultimately resulted in a hike we now count among our favorites. This one will be going in the 2022 edition of “Walking in Switzerland’s Berner Oberland.”

At 4 miles, taking two-hours, the trail is gently descending with some up-and-down undulation, a couple of points where one can shorten the hike by taking a bus, or the potential to lengthen the trek. This hike offers amazing vistas, a charming mountain café as a rest stop, and easy footing. A trifecta for us! As a bonus, we saw only five other people and two dogs on the entire hike and we were back in the valley in time for lunch. 

May have to try one of the other Grindelwald bus routes next week!

Click on any photo for a better view and a slide show.

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